By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Many fans of Tennessee Williams know of the feelings of anguish he experienced when dealing with his sister Rose Isabel Williams. Rose, who had suffered mental instability and had outwardly expressed her own sexual desires, was the victim of a botched prefrontal lobotomy authorized by her domineering mother Edwina Williams. She had intended for the operation to right her daughter’s troubled mind and alleviate her pent up sexuality, but the 1943 operation went horribly wrong.
As a result, Rose was institutionalized for the rest of her life, leaving her younger brother Thomas Lanier Williams, III to grieve over the loss of his constant childhood companion. Rose was the inspiration behind many of Tennessee Williams’ most famous female characters. Most notably, she was the archetype for the fragile Laura Wingfield of The Glass Menagerie.
Tom would often visit Rose in the facility she called home every chance he had. Even after achieving great fame, he never forgot his dear sister and specifically directed in his will that the bulk of his estate be set up as a trust for Rose’s care. It is against this backdrop of dissociated siblings that Kenny Prestininzi and Christopher Winslow have penned a new work, Miss Rose, which they have subtitled A Cabaret Play
With reverence to the spirit of Rose, who died in 1996 at age 86, and her famous writer brother, who had predeceased her 13 years earlier, Prestininzi and Winslow came up with a truly unique concept for a new musical show produced by their Salvage Arts Productions. They imagined that Rose, deep within the confines of the sanitorium and her own imagination, would welcome her brother as an audience member to a cabaret show in which she would be the star.
This rather brilliant conceit allows her to hold long conversations with her brother via the banter between songs and for the two to interact through verse and music. The songs themselves permit the characters to make commentary about their lives or significant events in their lives.
Cast as Rose is Rebecca Gibel, an actor with a pleasant voice coupled with a fierce and determined stage presence. It’s important to note that the character of Rose is serving a means to an end; she is a device to link the famous playwright and author with the sister who was once his closest companion. There are unexpressed feelings he must address related to the choices he has made in his own life and Rose seems to know all about him.
Playing the role of Tom is Leicester Landon, a generous actor who passes easily as a genteel Southern gentleman sensitive to his sweet-natured sister and, occasionally, as a famous iconoclast attempting to find happiness in a world that is quite challenging and unforgiving. However, the actor, whose first name rhymes with jester, also brings a measure of joy and playfulness to the role as we peer into his carefree nature at times, too.
As Rose continues her review in song accompanied by pianist and music director Audrey Smith, Tom reacts to a number of feelings she stirs within him. It is this relationship – the intimate connection between a cabaret performer and her audience – where we appreciate the depth of emotion between them and an innate acceptance of one another.
Assistant director Alston Brown also plays a minor role as Jerry, a background singer who provides harmony to what might otherwise be a dissonant cabaret act. He also occasionally serves as both an impromptu set designer and props artist, too.
Miss Rose is destined to make a future stop here in New Orleans as part of as yet unscheduled spring appearance at the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival. However, it will likely first arrive at next summer’s Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
The performers serve up the original musical numbers quite well. Like any good cabaret act, the show could use a bit of a trim. At 90 minutes, it drags for a bit and could better emulate a cabaret performance were it to stay within the confines of a 70-minute length. This world premiere suggests this gemstone needs to be cut slightly and polished brightly for all the world to see.
Miss Rose: A Cabaret Play (90 minutes with no intermission) finishes its world premiere Salvage Arts Productions run with three performances at the Marigny Opera House, 765 St. Ferdinand Street in New Orleans, this Thursday through Saturday, June 29 – 30 and July 1. All performances begin at 8 p.m. Purchase tickets here.